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The Letters of Paul in the New Testament show his brilliance in translating the intensely Palestinian Jewish nature of Jesus and his message into terms understandable and relevant to the Gentile world. He presents the Christian message in terms which have continued to address Gentiles for 2,000 years. He was exactly the man the Christian Church needed – his clarity and his perception continue to impress students today. He was not the founder of modern Christianity but the interpreter of Jesus' message for the Gentile world. He had a wonderfully engaging way of expressing himself, including his description of people – such as his assessment of Cretans (whom he described as “slow-bellies and liars” Titus 1:12). Cretans continued to worship the Greek gods throughout ancient history. A particular favourite was the god of wine, Dionysius. At festivals, jars would be left behind the statue of this god in his temples in Crete, and “miraculously” by morning those jars would be full of wine. Some modern theologians who assert a late date for the Gospel regard John 2:1-10 as an attempt by the writer to present the idea that Jesus was just as good as Dionysius. It is entertaining to imagine how Paul might describe them today, with their Cretan attitude to miracles.

John 2:1-10

Two days later there was a wedding in the town of Cana in Galilee. Jesus' mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine had given out, Jesus' mother said to him, “They have no wine left”.

You must not tell me what to do” Jesus replied. “My time has not yet come”.

Jesus' mother then told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

The Jews have rules about ritual washing, and for this purpose six stone water jars were there, each one large enough to hold about 100 litres. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill these jars with water”. They filled them to the brim, and then he told them, “Now draw some water out and take it to the man in charge of the feast”. They took him the water, which now had turned into wine, and he tasted it. He did not know where this wine had come from (but, of course, the servants who had drawn out the water knew); so he called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone else serves the best wine first, and after the guests have had plenty to drink, he serves the ordinary wine. But you have kept the best wine until now!”

Jesus performed this first miracle in Cana in Galilee; there he revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.

The story of The Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-10) is a classic example of how impossible it has been for theologians to understand much of the material in the Gospels, due to their lack of knowledge of the Jewish cultural background. Information about the Jewish Law relating to the conduct of weddings (and indeed life for individuals in a Palestinian village) in the 1st Century has only recently become available, principally in my view through the work of J. D. M. Derrett and Kenneth Bailey.

It sheds no light at all to look at these stories from a Western viewpoint, imagining (even if only subconsciously) that it might have been very like mediaeval England. Today when we receive a wedding invitation in the West, we know what to expect: we will arrive at the right place at the due time, wearing our best clothes, gift in hand, to witness the marriage of the happy couple. We know that the ceremony will take about an hour, then there will be photographs, then family and close friends will celebrate with a special meal. In the evening, after the couple have departed for their honeymoon (which we all understand to be a holiday somewhere nice) the guests may well continue celebrating with a party or a dance – and by the next day everyone is back at home and the wedding is over.

An English friend of ours, Nicky, had the surprise of her life when she went (as she thought) just to visit the family of her fiance in Macedonia (Central Europe). When she arrived, there was great excitement, a huge welcome from his parents, and she was shown into a room where her wedding clothes had been prepared! The relatives and friends were already gathering, and the feast was being cooked: before she knew what was happening, the wedding was taking place! The men all celebrated in one house, the women in another, and the dancing and singing went on for several days. This was probably not unlike the scene in a village in Jesus' day.

Another factor which has created misunderstanding is the very close-knit nature of village society in Jesus' day. Modern society in the West consists of a widespread series of networks with many gaps through which individuals can easily fall. In a Palestinian village 2000 years ago, relationships were mostly limited to the local community and people were totally dependent on each other. John tells us that this was the very first miracle Jesus performed. It is probable that at the time hardly anyone present – apart from Jesus, Mary and the servants – would even have been aware that it had happened. Had anyone realised, the happy couple would have ceased to be the centre of attention – instead, the celebrations would have been brought to an untimely end in confusion as all eyes were turned to Jesus. This was not what Jesus wanted... in fact he instructed the servants not to say where the wine came from.

Up to the age of 11, I lived on the edge of a small village on Ashdown Forest in Sussex; because we were in a remote place I was not able to attend school. My sister and I were taught at home instead, by Sister Lambert, a French nun who lived locally and who had fled France because of threats to her life from a criminal regime there. This meant that I was at home most of the time; as a 5 or 6 year-old walking up to the village on errands to the local shop for my mother, I would stop and chat to all sorts of people on the way. I developed a very wide set of relationships with a lot of local people.

One person whom I remember very clearly was Ernie Pilbeam. He was a delightful man aged about 50, with a very sunny personality. He would always be standing by his garden gate ready to talk to anyone passing by. His parents, who must have been in their 80's, looked after him. As farm workers, they had hoped that one day Ernie would “better himself” and become an office worker – so he stood there in his wing collar and tie, wearing a grey suit and matching trilby hat, just as if he were about to go out to work. He had worn a bare patch in the grass where he always stood as the world passed him by. I was fascinated at the way he raised his hat to me and spoke with a most interesting lisp, and I could see that half his teeth were missing, and the remainder were a dark brown colour! But I would sit down on the grass and chat to him for ages – he and I, we discovered, had lots in common. We were both very interested in the army vehicles, which, as it was wartime, we saw all around us. We would sit together and watch the bomber aircraft flying over head. We would discuss whether it was “one of ours or one of theirs”... We moved away when I was 11 and I never saw Ernie again. I regret to say he probably ended up in some sort of institution as he would have been unable to care for himself when his parents died.

Miss Reed was another: I remember her as very sharp-featured, probably in her 60's, bent from a lifetime of labour on her smallholding. She lived in a mediaeval hovel with no running water or electricity. Her sheep and hens lived on the ground floor and during the winter she would sleep with them, to keep warm. Her clothes seemed to be held together by string! I was often sent to buy eggs from Miss Reed and was fascinated to see that she had not a tooth in her head. Like Ernie, she was another isolated and lonely person, who always seemed keen to see me for a chat. Even as a little boy I remember feeling very sorry for her. I value the fact that I knew so many people so well, and quite a lot about their lives. In village communities like this, everyone knew each other – the young, the old and the vulnerable were part of the community. However, in a Sussex village in the 1940's, many individuals like Ernie and Miss Reed were marginalised to the point where they almost completely slipped out of sight from the social scene. In village life in Jesus' day, this could not happen.

In a Palestinian village, a wedding would be a celebration where every member of the community would be involved; even people like Ernie and Miss Reed would have had a contribution to make. At a wedding feast such as John describes, Miss Reed might have provided the mutton and eggs, Ernie might be one of those helping to serve the food or wash the dishes – they would certainly have been there, and treated with respect. Their feeling of self-worth would have been as high as everyone else's. Everybody in rural society had a part to play. People did not have rights, but duties. The survival and prosperity of the village depended on each fulfilling his allotted responsibility – the farmer who owned the land, his workers, the various tradesmen such as carpenters and stone masons, the shepherds, etc. These villagers were extremely poor: to avoid starvation every single person had to work hard to play their part as best they could in the local agricultural economy.

Although we don't know exactly where Cana was, it is likely that “The Wedding at Cana” took place at the start of Jesus' early ministry around the towns and villages of Galilee. Mark tells us he was already famous for his preaching in the synagogue (Mark 6:1-6), the part of his ministry which eventually led to violent opposition (Luke 4:16-30). Wright considers that Jesus' survival as a preacher may have been largely due to his being continually on the move from one place to another, and difficult for the authorities to track.

The whole village would expect to attend a wedding: everyone would know the customs, so the writer of the Gospel did not include an explanation of the background to weddings – it was common knowledge. As with all aspects of Jewish life, every detail was covered by the Law. Being a very poor society, wedding gifts from the village took the form of a kind of tax. The average young couple would not be wealthy, and could not be expected to host the entire village themselves. Therefore, the Law laid down that each guest must provide a gift. If the gift were food and/or drink towards the 4-5 day feast, it would be very acceptable, and enjoyed by all the guests. If the gift were money, the couple could deduct a reasonable amount to pay for that person's share of the feast, and the rest of the money could be used to set up home or business – but the next time anyone in the donor's family got married, that sum must be repaid – it would be a debt enforceable at law.34Probably everyone would know what the others had given. Each had to contribute a sum of money, or an equivalent in food and wine, in line with their position in society and ability to pay. (It's a bit like that in Albania today – you can't give someone a gift without imposing an obligation on them to pay you back in some way in return.)

The main feast would be attended only by the men; ideally, at its head would be the local Rabbi, or failing that, a religious leader such as a local priest, capable of ensuring that God's Laws were complied with and that any disputes were quickly settled. There would be the family group of immediate relatives and hopefully another group of more important people such as land-owners (and maybe even the local Roman military commander) whose presence would be sought so that the couple could be given as good a start as possible in their married life. Such guests could be expected to make a substantial contribution to the feast! There would also be a few “sand-dwellers” (Fellaheen) who lived in the mountains or wilderness area, who did not enjoy the support of being part of a village community. They would be the equivalent of today's gypsies or nomads – “the poor”. Such people were in constant danger of starvation.

At the wedding feast, the ceremony over, the couple would have left the party to consummate their marriage in a nearby house for around a week – in the meantime the village would be continuing the celebrations, so a lot of food and wine would be consumed. (The steward of the feast would supervise the production of the food and drink, acting on behalf of the couple, much as a modern day butler might do.) The guests knew that part of their money gift had been used to provide their share of the wedding feast, and the feast must continue for the required number of days to be successful. If the wine ran out, the feast would be considered a failure, the wedding a disaster, the family in disgrace, and the young couple could be sued for damages by the guests for not providing the feast they had paid for. Worse still, if the damages could not be paid up front, it was quite possible that the young couple could be sold into slavery at the city market (until the next Jubilee year) to pay the necessary sum... so you can see that when Mary discovered the problem with the wine, the couple were in very serious trouble, and the servants knew it.

Such a situation is inconceivable to us today, with the sentimental attitude we have in the West towards weddings and young couples – but society then was not the same. Should the supply of wine fail, the young couple would have failed in their obligation to provide what the guests had paid for. In a society which depended on obligations being fulfilled, the young couple would attract great criticism, at the very least. This would affect their status in the village for the rest of their lives – and that of their family, too.

We are told that when Mary went to tell Jesus, his response seemed rather abrupt – “Madam, what to you and to me?” is the literal translation. However, modern linguists now understand this to be a colloquial way of saying “It's all right, I know... leave it to me.35 Actually, it was not etiquette for a lady to enter the room where the men (probably with Jesus at the head of the table as Rabbi) were celebrating – the women, as in Macedonia today, would be together in another area.

Mary obviously had total confidence in her son, and instructed the servants to “Do whatever he tells you...”.

Imagine the servants' astonishment when, in the middle of this crisis, he tells them to fill up the bathwater jars! Six big jars, containing about 135 litres each – long treks to the well, maybe, to complete the task – and what on earth for? And then being told to offer a cup of that bath water to the steward of the feast, in charge of checking the food and wine for quality – you can imagine how they fought over who should take that job on! NOT ME!!! Doubtless they were all watching anxiously the expression of amazement on the steward's face as he took the first sip – surely he would be furious? Another sip – and then he says with a huge smile: “Everyone else serves the best wine first, and after the guests have had plenty to drink, he serves the ordinary wine – but you have kept the best wine until now!”

So – was the point of the miracle simply to save the young couple from disgrace? No. It goes much further than that. Remember that it was obligatory to provide a wedding gift. A gift of food or wine imposed no future debt on the family. However, a Rabbi was not allowed to provide a wedding gift from the common purse (held by Judas, the disciples' treasurer, for the purchase of their provisions) as that would be considered misappropriation of funds. The Jews were very strict: funds given for religious purposes must be used for that purpose alone. Jewish customary law therefore made special provision in the case of a Rabbi attending a wedding: his father must provide the gift on his behalf... and He did.36

This was the first miracle recorded because it was here that his disciples suddenly realised who Jesus was – not just a wonderful person and an amazing Teacher, but the very Son of God. This is why the story ends “and his disciples believed in him” – his identity had suddenly become crystal clear: this was the Christ, the long expected Messiah. We don't know how many disciples were with Jesus at this stage, but for those who were there – discovering what had taken place – the impact was absolutely tremendous. They had suddenly discovered very much more about Jesus, although at this stage – and indeed until the Resurrection – they did not fully understand what it meant to be “Messiah”. Right up to Calvary they thought that the Messiah's ministry was going to liberate them from the Romans in some amazing way, and were still arguing about who was to be Prime Minister of the new and powerful State of Israel. (Mark 10: 35-40). This wrong understanding of what God intended for his people was deeply ingrained in every Jew. We should not be surprised that understanding came so late in the day – for all of them.

For a young couple, unknowingly saved from a life of disgrace for a supposed misappropriation of funds (for not providing as much wine as their guests had paid for), salvation was something very much more practical – as it was for so many of those whom Jesus saved from impossible situations, not least condemnation by their religious authorities. In several cases this could have meant loss of life – as we shall see...

This chapter explains the difficulties theologians have faced, particularly over the last few hundred years, in understanding the nature of the Jesus stories contained in the Gospels. Like many other accounts of the Jesus ministry, it underlines the very Palestinian Jewish nature of the Gospels. It shows that they were written for readers with an intimate knowledge of local customary law of the period. There was no need to explain the background. Local people knew all about it. For the first time in 1500 years we can understand it, too.

34 Derrett, J. Duncan. M. (1970): Law in the New Testament. London: Darton, Longman & Todd. p. 233

35 Derrett, J. Duncan. M. (1970): Law in the New Testament. London: Darton, Longman & Todd. p. 241-242
Jeremias, Joachim (1971): New Testament Theology Vol. 1. London: S.C.M. Press. p. 3-37

36 Derrett, J. Duncan. M. (1970): Law in the New Testament. London: Darton, Longman & Todd. p. 235